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The Last U.S. Cavalry Charge

June 5th, 2011 No comments
The Cavalry Charge, Frederic Remington

The Cavalry Charge, Frederic Remington

You are all familiar, I’m sure, with the image of the horse-mounted Cavalry from movie Westerns. Care to guess in which war the last United States horse-mounted cavalry charge took place?

o Civil War (1861-1865)

o Spanish-American War (1898)

o World War I (1914-1919)

o World War II (1939-1945)

The answer may surprise you: it was during World War II. It happened January 16, 1942 near the village of Morong on the Bataan Peninsula, during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, when the U.S. Army’s 26th Cavalry surprised a Japanese infantry unit and scattered them. [1] A nice painting commemorating the charge can be viewed here. But didn’t they have tanks and jeeps and half-tracks in World War II? Sure they did, but while the Army began the process of mechanization during World War I, this process was not complete even at the start of World War II. There was still a little room for an old-fashioned cavalry charge. The U.S. example, by the way, is not the last in history. As with a lot of historical trivia, there’s a lively debate over when the last cavalry charge in the world actually took place.

U.S. Special Forces on Horseback

U.S. Special Forces on Horseback

The traditional mission of the cavalry was as a specialized scouting and quick assault force. Military commanders used the cavalry to find the enemy’s forces, screen the enemy from finding their own forces, and strike the enemy at focused points in a battle. This is not to be confused with the use of horses as a means of military transportation. Dragoons, or mounted infantry, use horses to get to the scene, but any fighting is done while dismounted. As the photo shows, there are some pretty recent examples of the military use of horses – such as U.S. Special Forces during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2006. Sometimes the terrain just isn’t suited to mechanized vehicles, as anyone who has hiked in the Rockies can attest.

Sources:

[1] The Last Mounted Cavalry Charge: Luzon 1942, The CBS Interactive Business Network
[2] Cavalry, Wikipedia

Noms de Guerre

April 30th, 2011 No comments

“Nom de Guerre” is a French expression which, translated literally, means “war name”. Think “Maverick”, “Ice Man” and “Goose” in Top Gun. From a more historical perspective, think of General Thomas J. Jackson. Almost everyone calls him only by his nom de guerre: “Stonewall Jackson”. Many of our better-known military leaders have had a nom de guerre. In fact, some have had several, which reflect the relative success (at least as perceived by the public) of their military careers at the time the name is conferred.

Robert E. Lee

Robert E. Lee

Take for instance General Robert E. Lee. At the end of the Civil War, Lee was so venerated in the South (and pretty much in the North, too) that a small boy, learning about Lee in his classroom, asked his mother, “Momma, I’m confused. Was General Lee in the Old Testament or the New?” [1] But Lee was not always so lofty a figure in the public’s eye. At the start of the war, Lee was in charge of the disappointing Cheat Mountain Campaign in western Virginia. He was viewed by the public as being too cautious in battle, and was dubbed “Granny Lee”. After this campaign, Confederate President Jefferson Davis reassigned Lee (who had a background with the Corps of Engineers) to supervise the build-up of coastal defenses in South Carolina. This, and the construction of defensive trenches around Richmond earned Lee the sobriquet “King of Spades”, and it was not conferred in a positive tone. These early names gave way later to more positive nicknames later, after Lee’s brilliance as a field commander was established. Later we see him referred to affectionately as “Bobby Lee” and reverently as “Marse Robert” (marse is slang for master).

Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant

And how about Lee’s nemesis, General Ulysses S. Grant? After the successful investment of Fort Donelson, Grant received a request for surrender terms from the rebel commander, Simon Bolivar Buckner. Grant’s famous reply was “No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted.” [3] The capture of Fort Donelson in 1862 was one of the earliest Union successes in the Civil War, when the North was hungry for good news. The press seized upon the term “unconditional surrender”, and since it fit neatly into Grant’s initials, U.S. Grant became “Unconditional Surrender Grant”. Later, during the long and bloody campaign against Lee in 1864, when the war seemed interminable and Northern morale was flagging, Grant was nicknamed “The Butcher” or “Grant the Butcher” due to the high number of Union casualties, especially at Cold Harbor. This was not any more descriptive of Grant than “Granny Lee” was descriptive of Lee, since Grant had shown time and again during the war his care of the troops under his command. When Grant was finally able to pin Lee down and force a surrender he offered generous terms, according to Abraham Lincoln’s wishes to “let ‘em up easy” and his own inclinations. After the surrender he was the “Hero of Appomattox” and once again the darling of the North.

George S. Patton

George S. Patton

In World War II, General George S. Patton was known as “Old Blood and Guts” because he was the most aggressive fighting general in the European Theater. Check out his speech to his troops upon assuming command of the Third Army just before D-Day, and you’ll get a little insight to his approach to war. In North Africa, he squared off against a wily opponent in Germany’s Erwin Rommel, respectfully called “The Desert Fox” by the British. Which reminds me of the unstated rule of noms de guerre. A regular pseudonym may be self-imposed, say for example “Mark Twain”, which Samuel Langhorne Clemens chose to commemorate his days as a Mississippi riverboat pilot (“mark, twain” was the boatman’s call at measuring two fathoms, a minimum safe depth for navigation). Not so a nom de guerre, which must be chosen by your friends, the soldiers under your command, the press, or perhaps by your enemy.

Sources:

[1] The History Channel Presents The Civil War, The History Channel DVD Collection
[2] Lee’s Nicknames, Son of the South
[3] Correspondence Between Ulysses S. Grant and Simon B. Buckner Discussing Surrender Terms at Ft. Donelson, CivilWarHome.com
[4] The Famous Patton Speech, by Charles M. Province

The Block at the Top

April 9th, 2011 No comments

This week, the Federal Government almost shut down, due to lack of an approved budget. The media was keen to point out expected impacts of the looming shutdown, one of which was to close National Parks and Monuments. Featured prominently was the Washington Monument, a close-by and convenient symbol of our National treasures. This reminded me not of budget issues, but a newspaper feature from long ago, called Ripley’s Believe It or Not, which used to be included in the Sunday funny pages. The particular feature I remember brought attention to what was at the very top of the Washington Monument – not a granite capstone, but a solid pyramid of aluminum.

Washington Monument

Washington Monument

Aluminum? Really? Why aluminum? Well, I’ll tell you. When the Washington Monument was being built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1884, it was well known that tall, pointy structures were an irresistible invitation to lightning. (This had been noted long before Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod in 1749 [1], when it was a special irony that church spires were frequent targets of the Almighty’s wrath.) Colonel Thomas Lincoln Casey, the engineer in charge of construction, asked a foundry owner, William Frishmuth, for a quote on a metal pyramid for the top of the monument, to be attached to the lightning protection system being incorporated into the obelisk. The preferred metals were copper, bronze or brass, plated with platinum. Frishmuth instead suggested aluminum, and provided a quote of $75. This was accepted.
The Ripley’s article, as I remember it, suggested that aluminum was chosen because in 1884 it was a precious metal, about the same price as silver (~ $1 an ounce). This turns out to be an urban myth. Aluminum was chosen because it conducts electricity well and was expected to remain bright with long exposure to the elements. It was expensive because an efficient technique for separating aluminum metal from its natural mineral form was yet to be invented. Moreover, casting aluminum was an especially tricky process. Aluminum tended to bubble in the casting process and leave a porous surface. With great difficulty, Frishmuth was able to cast a 100 ounce pyramid with a smooth surface, the largest aluminum casting ever done to date, to be placed on the tallest man-made structure in the world.
Aluminum Pyramid

Aluminum Pyramid

The nine inch by six inch pyramid was polished and inscribed, and displayed at Tiffany’s in New York for several days before delivery to the Corps of Engineers. The pyramid was displayed on the floor, so that people could “jump over the top of the Washington Monument” (har har). Due to the cost of materials and the difficulty in casting the aluminum, the final bill presented was for $256.10. Colonel Casey was livid, but eventually he and Frishmuth settled on $225. On December 6, 1884 the aluminum pyramid was attached in a special ceremony. It was soon discovered, however, that the lightning protection system was inadequate, and copper rods were added to bolster the system. In 1934, the system was again modified with the addition of a copper collar and taller copper rods. The copper rods go unnoticed to a visitor at the monument, standing at street level 555 feet below.
Vox’s Take: The Washington Monument is no longer the tallest man-made structure in the world (losing that title to the Eiffel Tower in 1889 [3]), but is still the tallest free-standing masonry work. The aluminum capstone, now blunted by lightning strikes, still has held up well enough to read the inscriptions. Even at the inflated price of $225, it seems to have been worth it!

Sources:

[1] Lightning Rod, Wikipedia
[2] The Point of a Monument: A History of the Aluminum Cap of the Washington Monument, Journal of the Metal, Minerals and Materials Society
[3] Washington Monument, Wikipedia

Swastika: Good Luck Symbol

March 8th, 2011 No comments

Many years ago my Dad was showing me some coins and knick-knacks he had. One item, a token from a 1930-something Boy Scout National Jamboree, caught my attention. On the obverse side of the token was, naturally enough, a picture of a Boy Scout on a horse. On the reverse was a great big swastika. Dad can’t locate the coin now, but it was very similar to the one pictured here, recently posted on ebay:

Boy Scout Token Obverse

Boy Scout Token Obverse

Boy Scout Token Reverse

Boy Scout Token Reverse

What was the symbol of Nazi Germany doing on a Boy Scout token? Well, with a little reflection one realizes that the token pre-dates the prominence of the Nazi Party. Looking closely at the token, you’ll see other good luck symbols: a four-leaf clover, horseshoe, wishbone, and something I can’t make out. (Anybody know what that is?) Actually, the swastika has been a symbol of good luck, happiness and prosperity to a number of Eastern, Western and Native American cultures. [1]
Apache Basket

Apache Basket, Glen Isle Resort

At left is an Apache basket I recently photographed, part of the collection of Native American artifacts at the historic Glen Isle resort in Colorado.
Picture of Navaho Man, Miramont Castle

Picture of Navaho Man, Miramont Castle

Another example I recently came across is this picture of a Navaho man, hanging in the Miramont Castle in Manitou Springs, Colorado. The caption states the symbol means “rolling log” in Navaho culture. Not sure why that would be at the top of this picture. Check out the amazing variety of cultures that have used this symbol over the centuries on this page. It’s use dates back thousands of years, but so great was the tragedy inflicted on the human race by the Nazis that the good luck symbol they adopted for their party emblem is now in most Western cultures seen exclusively in its role as the emblem of the Nazi party and more recently, white supremacists and neo-Nazis. In Germany, the swastika is illegal to display as a symbol of “unconstitutional organizations”, a law enacted as part of that country’s denazification efforts following World War II. [2]
Catalog Image of Bf-109E with Swastika Replaced by Diamond

Catalog Image of Bf-109 with Swastika Replaced by Diamond

Restored Bf-109E with Swastika on Tail

Restored Bf-109E with Swastika on Tail

Restored BF-109E in Germany, no Swastika

Restored BF-109E in Germany, no Swastika

To take an example of how strong the stigma is and how difficult it seems to be for our culture to deal with it, let’s look at three representations of a classic Luftwaffe fighter, the Messerschmitt Bf-109E. Model airplane kit builders see advertisements for Luftwaffe aircraft model kits with the tail emblem blotted out, morphed into a big black diamond, eliminated or replaced with the black cross of the wing and fuselage insignia. (Hopefully the swastika decal is still in the kit for those who can handle authenticity.)
Even more amazing to me is to see full-size restorations and replicas of Luftwaffe aircraft with no swastika on the tail. Normally, aircraft restorers have an overriding passion for historical accuracy, but the quest for absolute authenticity apparently can’t always compete with the swastika’s stigma in Western culture. The sample Messerschmitt Bf-109E with the swastika shown correctly on the tail was flown in the Yankee Air Museum Airshow 2005. The restoration shown with no Swastika on the tail appears on a .eu (European) Web site. The aversion to even acknowledging the swastika in an historical context is not universal. The swastika continues to be used in its original positive context in Eastern cultures, but its stigmatization in the West prevents us from thinking of the symbol in anything but the “Nazi” context.

Vox’ Take: In some places, “political correctness” has trumped historical truth. That’s a shame. I think it would be very hard for most of us in Western cultures to ever think of the swastika in the positive context it once held, but I don’t think it helps to pretend it never existed. To understand history, we need to always look at the unvarnished truth.

Sources:
[1] Swastika and Cross, Swami B.G. Narasingha
[2] Strafgesetzbuch section 86a, Wikipedia
[3] Swastika, Wikipedia

Willit Run?

January 29th, 2011 No comments

Some time ago we visited the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. I had to smile when I saw the name of the North American P-51 Mustang on display there. The P-51 is named “Willit Run?”, but the nose art on this plane is not talking about this particular aircraft or any P-51 for that matter. It’s an inside joke of WWII vintage.

P-51 Mustang "Willit Run?"

Willit Run?


During WWII, as in every big war, private industry is called upon to produce war goods rather than civilian goods – “guns vs. butter”. Henry Ford took on a huge project to contract-build Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers in a new state-of-the-art manufacturing facility to be built on a farm which Henry Ford owned at Willow Run near Detroit. The facility was to be a prime example of Roosevelt’s “Arsenal of Democracy”, conceived and built on an unprecedented scale. Begun in April, 1941, it was the largest enclosed room in the world, with 3.5 million square feet. But Willow Run had a long and troubled construction and start-up time. So long and troubled a start-up, that after two years with little results the public became disillusioned with the project and derisively nicknamed the plant “Willit Run?”.
Willow Run Assembly Line

Willow Run Assembly Line

Ford persevered however, and Willow Run finally hit its stride, eventually producing at the prodigious rate of 650 B-24 bombers per month by August, 1944. At war’s end, Willow Run had produced about half of the 18,000 B-24′s which saw service in the war.
Sources
[1] Willow Run, Wikipedia
[2] Willow Run and the Arsenal of Democracy, Michigan History, Detroit News

Why Clocks Say “IIII’ Rather Than “IV”

January 22nd, 2011 1 comment

You may have noticed – or you may not have. Take a look at a clock face with Roman-style numerals. Most of them show four as “IIII” rather than “IV”. What’s up with that? We were taught in grade school (at least I was) the subtractive notation for Roman Numerals: when you count higher than three or eight you can subtract one from the next highest five or ten and save yourself a numeral. So why don’t clocks do this? Rather, why do they do this for nine but not four?

Clock Face

Clock Face

The simple answer is that this is tradition: that’s the way clock faces have always been made. But that’s not really an answer as to why. Turns out we are mighty long on theories and short on facts as to the origin of this tradition.
Theory One has it that the heavy strokes of “IIII” aesthetically balance out the “VIII” on the other side of the clock, but that theory ignores that “V” does not balance out “VII”, and also ignores the fact that “IIII” was used on the very earliest clocks, which use a 24-hour face.
24-hour clock face from Stendal, Germany

24-hour clock face from Stendal, Germany

Theory Two is that clock-makers spelled four as “IIII” because it was more economical: you could cast all the characters needed for a clock face with four “X”s, four “V”s and twenty “I”s. Nice and symmetrical. But this theory ignores the fact that most clocks with cast numerals had the whole number cast as one piece, not as individual characters. Another problem with this theory is that there does not seem to be a decline in the use of “IIII” for clocks with painted faces. And finally, the “IV” saves you three “I”s for a “V”, so that should be more economical.
Theory Three has it that the tradition originated with Roman sundials, and “IIII” was easier for peasants to understand than the use of the subtractive “IV” (this theory relies on the supposition that poor people must also be stupid). Another problem with this theory is that old sundials use “IX” for nine. What? Peasants could figure out nine but not four?
IVPITER

IVPITER

The “Right” Theory – I’m inclined to believe the practice originated something like this: clocks spell the Roman four as “IIII” because that was the common practice in all writings using Roman numbers at the time clocks were invented, around the 13th century. To be sure, the use of subtractive notation was in use at the time, e.g. nine was always “IX”, not “VIIII”, but four was an exception. Why is this? The theory is that “IV” was simply inappropriate for Romans to use for a number, because it was the first two letters, and consequently abbreviation, for “IVPITER”, the Latin script spelling for the god Jupiter. Jupiter was not just any god, he was the king of the gods. So out of respect for Jupiter or perhaps just to avoid misunderstanding, four had to be “IIII”. I first read about this theory in an article by Isaac Asimov some 30 years ago, in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, if I remember correctly. If the theory was good enough for Isaac Asimov, by golly, it’s good enough for me. The real answer may be lost to history, but it’s certainly a fun little anomaly to guess about.
Sources:
[1] FAQ: Roman IIII vs. IV on Clock Dials, UBR, Inc.
[2] Why does a clock face have ’4′ as ‘IIII’ instead of ‘IV’ ?Askville by Amazon, Askville by Amazon
[3] CLOCKING THE FOURS: A NEW THEORY ABOUT IIII, Paul Lewis Post
[4] Time is racing, www.24hourtime.info